In 1961, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) was an aeronautics engineer and test pilot for the North American X-15, where he had an intensely terrifying experience when his plane began to 'bounce' atop the earth's atmosphere. The next year, he was one of the civilians chosen for the NASA Astronaut Corps, never dreaming that seven years later he would lead the Apollo 11 moon mission where he would utter 'one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind' as the "First Man."
Director Damien Chazelle ("Whiplash," "La La Land") has made an intensely personal film about a very private man's experiences during America's race to the moon. The movie is so focused on Armstrong, it's as if cinematographer Linus Sandgren ("La La Land") has him in a spotlight, peripheral action unfocussed at its edges (we may hear people refer to 'Gus,' for example, but are left to assume it's Grissom and even guess which actor is portraying him (Shea Whigham)). Adapting James R. Hansen's book, screenwriter Josh Singer ("Spotlight") emphasizes the heartbreaking loss Armstrong endured while participating in increasingly dangerous missions, the ultimate one depicted as a spiritual quest. Chazelle's immersive tactics illustrate just how scary these tests and attempts were, like sitting in a cramped tin can propelled by enough rocket power to lift a freight train. And yet for all the film's stunning moments, we never really get a grip on what drove Armstrong, Gosling's quiet, interior performance, like the man himself, somewhat inscrutable.
"First Man's" anchoring performance comes from Claire Foy. She is Janet Armstrong, a woman of incredible strength we first see living a quiet life in the woods, shrouded in sadness as she and Neil's young daughter Karen succumbs to cancer. It is the first loss depicted in Neil's life, although we will later learn from Jan that he lost four colleagues in one year during his test pilot days. After moving to Houston, Jan raises the two sons who followed Karen as Neil begins NASA training. Neil is picked as the first to ride the 'vomit comet' and shocks everyone when he elects to stay on it longer, an event Chazelle ties directly to the man's incredible control during Gemini 8 four years later. Armstrong was the first pilot to successfully dock in space, but shortly afterwards, their ship began to yaw. Suspecting the Agena capsule, Armstrong undocked, but the problem was with the Gemini and the capsule went into an uncontrollable spin which caused copilot Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott) to black out. Armstrong manually regained control, saving their lives. It was his first space flight.
By this time Armstrong had already lost Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), another civilian who joined NASA at the same time. While at a Washington D.C. cocktail party, Armstrong is pulled aside for a phone call informing him of the deaths of Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) and Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke) in a fire during an Apollo 1 test, the latter a close friend and neighbor (there is an incredible moment when Jan looks out her window and sees Pat White (Chazelle's wife, Olivia Hamilton) frozen in her driveway). Chazelle depicts the accident and it is horrifying, three men in incredibly tight quarters suddenly engulfed because of a spark, their capsule door collapsing inward from the vacuum of extinguished oxygen.
Armstrong sidesteps another disaster test flying the lunar landing module. Anxiety levels are high in the Armstrong household, Janet confronting her husband to open up and speak to their sons before he leaves. It is a sober conversation and he leaves without a hug or kiss goodbye. The mission is a marvel, Chazelle allowing us to experience much of it as reflections, that first step seen as Armstrong himself would have seen it, before opening up to the moon's surface, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) skipping along in weightless joy.
The film's technical aspects are impressive, models recreated with a realism that reveals their fragility. Sound convinces us we are riding a rocket, its sudden disappearance a jarring reminder of the vastness of space. Justin Hurwitz's ("La La Land") score is phenomenal, his use of the theremin subtly increasing in the mix, reflecting the Armstrongs' song, 'Lunar Rhapsody' (Armstrong appropriately brings a tape to the moon, a refrain of a romantic moment).
We may not understand Armstrong's motivation, but it's hard to argue with Gosling's choices here. Foy, sporting a utilitarian short brunette bob, is commanding, standing up to the likes of Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler). Stoll's Aldrin is an insensitive, ambitious jerk, so opposite of Armstrong their historic pairing is ironic. The film also stars Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell, Ethan Embry as Pete Conrad, Lukas Haas as Mike Collins and Ciarán Hinds as Space Center director Robert Gilruth.
Alone on the surface of the moon, Armstrong performs his own private ritual, letting go of what has haunted him. This is a man who can still see stars long gone as their light finally arrives in his orbit.
Robin did not see this film.
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